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The missing transgender woman, and what’s (not) being done

Monday, December 31, 2012
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There’s a particularly cynical exchange in an episode of the cult HBO series “The Wire,” wherein a couple of homicide detectives remark upon how little priority is being given to the unsolved murders of several poor African-Americans.

To drive the point home, one of the detectives refers to these homicides as “misdemeanor murders”.

Complaining about the media’s exclusive fascination with kidnapped or missing white children has become something of a dead horse. At a certain point, just observing that something is a problem isn’t really helping matters; if it bothers you, logic dictates, you actually try to do something about it.

Sage Smith

That said, it’s hard not to be disturbed by the near-dearth of coverage that the case of Sage Smith has received, in Virginia or nationally, and the tone of the scant coverage that she has been given.

Smith is a 19-year-old African-American transgender woman who disappeared from her Charlottesville, Va., home nearly a month ago; she was last seen leaving to meet one Eric McFadden at a train station and still had not returned two days later.

According to Daryl C. Hannah of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), since Smith’s disappearance, the only remotely “mainstream” media coverage the disappearance has received has been a local news report.

During this report, despite identifying as female, Smith is repeatedly referred to using male pronouns; the local police have insisted on the same terminology, issuing a statement in which they refer to Smith as a “young man.” Even “Missing” posters in Richmond refer to Smith as “him/her.”

The case demonstrates, in microcosm, everything wrong with media coverage of trans people: the only outlet that even cares enough to cover the story cannot be bothered to even use correct pronouns, even though the Associated Press stylebook states that journalists should “use the pronoun consistent with the way the (transgender) individuals live publicly.”

This is hardly a new phenomenon, unfortunately; earlier this year, Virginia transgender inmate Ophelia De’Lonta made headlines when she sought taxpayer funding for her gender reassignment surgery. Multiple Virginia media outlets, including WTVR’s Mark Holmberg, referred to De’Lonta as a “man” or using male pronouns.

It’s one thing to say De’Lonta’s transition should not be taxpayer-subsidized, but it’s quite another to say it while denying her the basic dignity of her chosen gender identity.

In the Smith case, meanwhile, refusal to acknowledge that Smith is transgender can be even more harmful: someone who gives the story only a cursory glance will be on the lookout for a 19-year-old man, and thus will be no help in the search for Smith.

“Transgender teenagers face a myriad of risk factors that are exacerbated in situations when a youth goes missing,” said Beth Panilaitis, Executive Director of the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY). “Unfortunately, there isn’t the immediate community wide call to action for transgender youth that you see in other cases which leads to much less searching for the young person.  They are likely to have less family support, which leads to fewer individuals pushing for a search.”

The Sage Smith story (or lack thereof) underlines in many ways the uphill struggle transgender individuals still face, even as gay people and lesbians make welcome strides in terms of equality.

Compare, for instance, the coverage given to victories for marriage equality in Maryland, Maine and Washington to coverage given to the removal of “gender identity disorder” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Moreover, neither the media nor the public seem to be entirely sure how to discuss transgender individuals; a 2008 GLAAD study found that only 1 in 8 respondents reported being acquainted with someone who was transgender. Non-malicious ignorance on a personal level is one thing, but the press — for whom doing research on unfamiliar issues is part of the job description — seems just as uncurious, despite their capacity to inform if they made a sincere effort.

This is, as Paul McCartney once observed, an ever-changing world, and no one begrudges the press a little time to figure out how to properly cover concepts they may be unfamiliar with.

But in the meantime, a young woman is missing, and she deserves better than to be disappeared again by the Fourth Estate simply because they find her gender identification too awkward to discuss.

Anyone with information as to the whereabouts of Sage Smith is encouraged to contact the Charlottesville, Va., Police Department at (434) 977-4000.

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